The Denver Broncos beat the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round, but in the process, they lost cornerback Chris Harris Jr. to a torn ACL. The injury is an untimely one because the Broncos’ opponent this coming Sunday is the UGG-wearing quarterback of the New England Patriots, Tom Brady.
With outside linebacker Von Miller also out with an ACL tear, Harris was arguably the best player on the Broncos defense. Without Harris, the Broncos will need big performances from a few aging veterans and a rookie with a cast on his surgically repaired thumb.
No matter what the Broncos do, there is a significant drop-off from the cornerback that Pro Football Focus graded (subscription required) as the ninth-best in the league to any of the gaggle of replacement options. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Broncos allowed a QBR of 43.6 with Harris on the field and a 93.0 QBR in the 81 snaps without him.
It’s a tough blow to the Broncos to lose such a good player at this stage of the season, and the Patriots could change their plan of attack against them as a result. The Patriots may have planned to use the ground game that the Chargers successfully wielded to keep the score down against the Broncos, but they could now decide to open things up with a pass-heavy attack.
For competitive reasons, the Broncos may keep who will be the replacement for Harris a secret. Head coach John Fox wasn’t at liberty to disclose how the Broncos would replace him to the media on Monday.
"We're going to know long before you guys will know," Fox said according to Gary Caldwell of DenverBroncos.com, later elaborating, "It is really how they perform in practice and what we see on the practice field in preparation for New England. ... It's a long list, a long cast. If I knew right now I wouldn't say anyways."
Of course, the Broncos only have so many options to replace Harris on the roster. That leaves open the option that any or all of the Broncos' options—Champ Bailey, Quentin Jammer, Kayvon Webster, Tony Carter or Michael Huff—could get extra playing time as a result of Harris’ injury. The Broncos could even try to mix it up to keep to keep Brady from picking on a particular player.
A year ago, losing Harris wouldn’t have been as big a blow because Bailey and Carter were both playing well. Both could be in the mix to help the Broncos deal with the loss of Harris, but Carter hasn’t played significant snaps since Week 5, and Bailey has played a full game’s worth of snaps just once this season.
After Harris left the game against the Chargers, the Broncos opted to use a mix of Jammer and Bailey. The rookie Webster didn’t get into the mix but played significant snaps earlier this season while filling in for Bailey before breaking his right thumb.
Huff could also figure into the game plan, as he has been getting regular snaps at free safety over the last few games. Huff played more cornerback than safety for the Oakland Raiders in 2012 and fared well. That would become an option if free safety Rahim Moore can return to action this week.
Replacing Harris will be a challenge because he was the team’s primary slot cornerback. With Bailey injured to start the season, Harris played outside and moved down into the slot in nickel situations since that was an easier adjustment to make.
Slot cornerback is, in some ways, one of the hardest jobs on defense because the receiver can break sharply in either direction. There is a lot less time to react as a slot cornerback because the ball takes a lot less time to travel from the quarterback to his intended target.